Learning to Hate: A Story Whose Relevance Reaches Beyond the West Side

West Side Story

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: my iPhone

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

“I can kill now,” Maria screams, “Because I hate now too!”

When they programmed a concert performance of West Side Story for this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil didn’t know the shows would take place at a moment when Americans are having an earnest, frank discussion about race, guns, power, and fear of The Other in the wake of a series of tragic murders by and of police. But as rapper Jay Z said when he released the song “Spiritual,” (written in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but not finished or released until last week) sadly, “this issue will always be relevant.”

And that’s the problem with America, the problem with this planet. These kinds of stories will always be relevant. West Side Story, performed Thursday night by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, felt chillingly relevant. The story of learning how to hate a human being simply because of who he or she is was relevant when Shakespeare told it in the 1590s, it was relevant when Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim told it in the 1950s, and it will be relevant when the next writer, composer, or filmmaker tells it in the future.

Thursday’s performance, for me, had the urgency of the moment on its side. Three hours before the downbeat, President Obama had gathered law enforcement officers and advocates together with activists for #BlackLivesMatter and families of victims of police violence for a public conversation about how each side viewed The Other and how we could find common ground on this contentious battleground. As he did in his speech at the police officers’ memorial service in Dallas, President Obama voiced his optimism, saying, “Nobody’s more hopeful than me. I’m Mr. Hope when it comes to these issues. I’ve said from the start that we are not as divided as we seem.”

Those words, and more, from the President’s town hall meeting were ringing in my ears as Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil started playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. Considering the challenging circumstances of the Hollywood Bowl, the performance was remarkably well-executed. (The orchestra was set up in front of a raised area that acted as the stage for the actors–the regular stage of the Bowl functioned as an orchestra pit. The actors were miles away from the conductor; sight-lines seemed awkward for the actors and some of the musicians of the orchestra. Hearing one another is always difficult on a stage that large.)

Still, it was well-executed…and also fun. The audience was primed to be swept up in this familiar show. They snapped along with “Cool,” and shouted out at the appropriate times during “Mambo.” For purely nostalgic reasons, I was super-excited to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil do “Mambo,” because that’s the first piece of music I ever saw Dudamel conduct. (You know, that 2007 performance from the BBC Proms with the dancing, trumpet-spinning Bolivares.)

Solea Pfeiffer, making her Hollywood Bowl debut, was stunning as Maria. As Tony, Jeremy Jordan was solid, but played the character a bit on the smarmy side. Drew Foster brought the house down as Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song which is more than just comic relief–it’s the song which points us back to the thesis of the entire show and forward to the climactic moment with Maria brandishing the gun.

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Action looks to everyone else as he searches for a reason as to why he’s “so bad…psychologically disturbed…a mess…sociologically sick…a jerk…no good…no damn good.” He blames his parents, society, the system, anyone but himself.

Later, after Action and a group of Jets assault Anita in the drug store and she leaves to go set the fatal flaw in motion, Doc asks Action, “What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!”

To which, Action replies, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.”

For Maria, however, it’s no one’s fault but her own. In the end, gun drawn, Maria owns her own hate. She says, “We all killed him,” but she includes herself in that indictment. In so doing, Maria accepts responsibility for the perpetuation of the story. “I can kill now, because I hate now too!”

Tony’s death is not the tragedy. That Tony and Maria are never able to realize their love for each other is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we will continue to learn to hate The Other. The tragedy is that the story will go on.

Ultimately, Maria lays her weapon down, but Leonard Bernstein’s music suggests she doesn’t lay her hate down with it. The upper strings and woodwinds try to resolve the drama with a reprise of the theme from “Somewhere,” but the lower strings and timpani punctuate this with the dissonance of a tri-tone. The interval that was designated as “dangerous” by medieval composer Guido d’Arezzo and referred to as “The Devil in Music” in the 18th century is the interval that punctuates the conclusion and attempted resolution of this story.

Hate wins in West Side Story. But in life, love must win. Otherwise, we keep telling this same tragic story over and over and over again. Accepting responsibility is a start. Maria doesn’t say the Jets made her hate or the cops made her hate or the culture of gang violence made me hate. She just says, “I hate.”

When we recognize hate of The Other in ourselves, how do we respond? Do we blame someone or something else like Action did? Or do we accept responsibility like Maria did? We all fail. We all hate. It’s what happens next that counts.

Resurrection of Hope

alton-sterling-and-philando-castileIt’s been a hell of a week.

As we struggled to process the murder of Alton Sterling, we learned of the murder of Philando Castile. The Washington Post tells us 509 people have been killed by police this year. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune tells us that 148 people have been killed by police in Minnesota since 2000 and no officers have been charged in any of the deaths.

Then Dallas happens.

And we are reminded that one of the greatest strengths of America–its diversity–is also one of the greatest sources of societal fragility. We are only strong when we value others as highly as we value ourselves. We are only great when we recognize where we have failed our fellow citizens and alter our course.

Maybe because it happened in Dallas, maybe because it happened on the 156th birthday of Gustav Mahler…whatever reason, I was thinking about Leonard Bernstein’s response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Two days after Kennedy’s death, Bernstein conducted a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a live CBS television broadcast.

(This is the only fragment of that historic performance that is available on YouTube.)

On the surface, Mahler’s second symphony seems like a curious choice to memorialize a great tragedy. It’s the “Resurrection” Symphony. It’s a triumphant work with one of the most ecstatic conclusions in all of music. Why Mahler 2? Why not something with a little more emotional weight, like a Requiem…or the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony?

The day after the live broadcast–also the day of President Kennedy’s funeral–Leonard Bernstein explained his choice in a speech at the United Jewish Appeal Benefit that has since become as famous as it is inspirational. (His conclusion, pictured, has become a meme that gets shared–overshared, tbqh–in classical music circles in the aftermath of tragedy.)

lb_jfk_speech

Reading from handwritten notes, Bernstein said:

“Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony—“The Resurrection” –in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the “Resurrection” Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the “Eroica”? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow father strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.”

Bernstein chose to perform music that inspires the resurrection of hope in the midst of shocking, tragic, and seemingly hopeless circumstances.

This has so much relevance for us today, as our nation continues a contentious conversation about race and power and guns and fear and we seek to find answers to extremely nuanced and complicated problems.

Through art, we express and confront the deepest emotional trauma we face as well as vivid aspirational visions of what we can achieve as a human race. Art showcases the best that humanity has to offer.

We can do better. We must do better. It is not easy. Life’s most important challenges never are. But with Leonard Bernstein’s words ringing in our ears, “we must somehow father the strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving.”

This has been a hell of a week. A lot of weeks are hell. And when we don’t have the strength inside of ourselves to resurrect any hope whatsoever, thank goodness we can turn to music.

Mahler’s second symphony begins with a defiant funeral march. We grieve, angry that we have once again been forced to grieve. The symphony ends in triumph with words, written by Mahler himself, that remind us that death is not meaningless when it is transformational.

“O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

 

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

 

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

Music and The Wall

BERLIN WALL

I was seven years old when the Berlin Wall came down. It was one of the first world events I remember. My parents, sister, and I gathered around our TV and watched the fuzzy images stream into our living room. I didn’t fully grasp the enormity of the moment, but I knew something big was happening.

Four years later, I would visit Berlin for the first time. Various museums had already sprouted up, telling the story of a divided Berlin. Sections of The Wall remained positioned around the city; people could walk right up to it, take a few swings, and bring a hunk of The Wall home with them as a souvenir. (Looking back, I’m sure this was probably frowned upon, but it’s something that literally everyone was doing. And I like the poetry of that: leaving a portion of the thing that represented oppression and violence in place and quietly looking the other way as citizens and tourists alike chip away at it for years.)

Julio Fernandez sprays air freshener while mopping up a mess in a bathroom at the Main Street Station casino, Las Vegas. The wall holding up the urinals is a piece of the Berlin Wall. The wall that once separated East from West Berlin has largely disappeared from the city. The few sections that remain stand as potent monuments to the ideological divisions of the Cold War. But 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, some 120 parts of it can now be found in more than 40 countries, from Britain to South Africa and the United States. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Julio Fernandez sprays air freshener while mopping up a mess in a bathroom at the Main Street Station casino, Las Vegas. The wall holding up the urinals is a piece of the Berlin Wall. The wall that once separated East from West Berlin has largely disappeared from the city. The few sections that remain stand as potent monuments to the ideological divisions of the Cold War. But 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, some 120 parts of it can now be found in more than 40 countries, from Britain to South Africa and the United States. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Conductor Daniel Barenboim happened to be in Berlin in November 1989, recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, when The Wall came down. Here’s how he described the scene that weekend:

“When I came to the recording studio on Friday 10 November I discussed with the musicians, who were in a highly excitable state, what we could do to mark the event. We planned a free concert on the Sunday evening exclusively for the citizens of East Germany, of Beethoven’s 7th, a purely practical decision because we’d been practicing it for the recording.

“There were no tickets, they just had to show their GDR ID cards. People were queuing outside from 4am in a line that stretched around the building. …

“After the concert I sat in my dressing room, and a woman came to the door accompanied by a young man, with a bouquet of flowers … she came up to me shaking and gave me the bouquet and thanked me profusely, saying the Berlin Wall had separated her from her son (the man with her) and that they had been reunited again just the evening before for the first time in almost three decades. I was moved to tears by her story and told the woman she could always reach me and I’d invite her to a concert.”

That “Concert for the Citizens of the GDR” was filmed and the Berlin Philharmonic recently made it available in the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall. I was hoping the orchestra would offer the concert free of charge during this weekend of the 25th anniversary of the falling of The Wall, but it doesn’t look like they will. Still, less than 10 Euros gets you a week’s pass to the DCH…and you can watch the trailer for free…and the Berlin Phil has put the final two minutes of the concert on YouTube. (The cheers of the audience get me every time.)

You can also watch an interview with Daniel Barenboim about the concert.

On Christmas Day, 1989, in the former East Berlin, another grand performance of a Beethoven Symphony took place. This time it was an ensemble made up of musicians from six different orchestras, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In the final movement, Bernstein asked the chorus to sing the word “Freiheit” (freedom) in place of “Freude” (joy). That entire concert is available here:

And it was the legendary Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich–who was such a courageous champion of Soviet-era dissidents–who brought his cello to the crumbling Berlin Wall, and played Bach, triumphantly and “from the heart.”